Veterans allowed too much pot, says former NDP MP Peter Stoffer
'10 grams a day is an awful lot of marijuana ... It is an incredible amount'
Former NDP MP Peter Stoffer agrees that medical cannabis can have benefits for veterans, but says he's worried about the amount of cannabis former soldiers are allowed under Veterans Affairs Canada rules.
Stoffer, who was veterans affairs critic for the NDP until he was defeated in the 2015 election, believes that the high level of medical marijuana allowed by Veterans Affairs — up to 10 grams a day — is fostering overuse.
"Ten grams a day is an awful lot of marijuana to give one person. It is an incredible amount."
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Stoffer is now public affairs advocate for Trauma Healing Centers, a company that works with veterans, first responders and others dealing with trauma and chronic pain. While he says cannabis can help veterans who are suffering, he says the goal is to help manage their pain, not to get them high.
"That's simply not the way to go. You're not helping that person at all. You're not giving them any chance of recovery. All you're really doing is masking the pain that they're suffering," Stoffer said.
The Trauma Healing Centres offer counselling as well as medical cannabis consultations.
"What you need to do is really sit down with these individuals, and long before you dispense any marijuana, look at their lifestyle: what are they doing, what are they eating, where do they live, how is their financial situation, how is their personal situation?" he added.
Veterans Affairs doesn't actually give veterans medical marijuana, but the department allows them to be compensated for up to 10 grams a day through insurance. Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr said back in March that he was launching an internal review of medical marijuana policy, after data showed the number of prescriptions had increased tenfold in two years.
The results of that review will be released "in the coming weeks," Veterans Affairs Canada spokeswoman Sarah McMaster told CBC News.
"Veterans Affairs Canada is finalizing its review that assesses the department's current approach to reimbursing marijuana for medical purposes," she said in a written statement.
The auditor general expressed concern that 10 grams was too much in his spring 2016 report.
Auditor general wants better monitoring
"This is double the amount identified as being appropriate in Veterans Affairs Canada's consultations with external health professionals, and more than three times the amount that Health Canada has reported as being most commonly utilized by individuals for medical purposes," the report said.
The auditor's report also pointed out that while Veterans Affairs manages the only publicly funded plan that covers medical marijuana, "it does not monitor trends that may suggest high-risk utilization."
We have to understand that these men and women have sustained serious, life-altering trauma in many cases- Michael Blais , Canadian Veterans Advocacy
At least one veterans' group takes issue with Stoffer's position.
"No bureaucrat is entitled to get between a patient and a doctor," said Michael Blais of Canadian Veterans Advocacy. "If that physician has written out a script for whatever, it is Veterans Affairs Canada's obligation to fulfil that script if it relates to the wound. End of story. There's no limitations."
Blais said he takes six grams of marijuana a day to help with complex neurological pain. He said his marijuana has a high THC count to address his particular type of pain. However he says many veterans are using lower THC cannabis, which means they are unlikely to get high. Blais said marijuana has helped him and many others get off narcotic painkillers.
He's upset by Stoffer's suggestion that doctors are prescribing too much medical pot.
"We have to understand that these men and women have sustained serious, life-altering trauma in many cases," and that medical marijuana has given them hope.
"And now that they've found relief, now that there's an alternative there, for anyone who is not in pain, who has not sacrificed, to come out and make arbitrary statements on dosage, that — without even looking at [a] man's medical record or talking to his doctor, is ludicrous," Blais said.
Pot for post-traumatic stress
Stoffer and Blais both agree with veterans using cannabis to help with post-traumatic stress disorder. However the Canadian Forces has said there's not enough proof to authorize marijuana as a treatment for PTSD and that some evidence suggests it could be harmful.
It's unclear how many veterans use medical marijuana to treat PTSD or operational stress injuries. Veterans Affairs said in March that it doesn't track the underlying conditions behind prescriptions.
Stoffer said he's seen many veterans whose lives were turned around by using cannabis to treat PTSD. He believes the anecdotal evidence of its effects, combined with whatever scientific data is available, should be enough for the government.
"I believe so. But don't take my word for it, take the word of the veterans who are on medical cannabis and what it's done for them."
A doctor would have to prescribe marijuana in order for Veterans Affairs to cover the costs, but the auditor general also raised questions about the practice.
It analyzed the data for a nine-month span in 2015 and found that just four doctors authorized more than half the medical marijuana claims.
Stoffer added that he'd like to see monitoring by Veterans Affairs to see if the medications they covered are actually helping veterans in the way they were intended.